Admittedly, I see the world in terms of darkness rather than light, and in history as in life, I am drawn more to stories of human pathos than to tales of human triumph. I am bemused by “rosy retrospection”—the penchant of many to reflect on the positives of the past rather than on the negatives and to also, therefore, see the past as somehow better than the present.
Darkness, pathos, and the folly of rosy retrospection comprise the foundation of Pioneering Death. It tells the story of Loyd Montgomery, an impoverished eighteen-year-old who shot and killed his parents and a visiting neighbor on his family’s farm near the western Oregon town of Brownsville late on the fair autumn day of November 19, 1895. Little more than two months later, on a cool morning and just as the rising sun gilded the eastern sky above the Cascade Range, Loyd met his own end on gallows erected adjacent to the Linn County jail in the county seat of Albany.
I first became aware of the Montgomery murders when, back in the early 1980s, I began researching my own family’s history as connected to Brownsville, a community whose origins are rooted in the arrival there in the 1840s of its first white American settlers who came by way of wagons on the overland trails. When I began my work, local historians, the librarian, and museum docents who befriended me mentioned the murders. Given that the Montgomerys were among the most esteemed early American settlers of the area, when these local authorities spoke of that past tragedy, they did so more in hushed tones and as an aside to the official, celebratory “pioneer” history of that community. Clearly, Loyd’s grim tale haunted Brownsville long after it had happened. It took me close to four decades of intermittent research and unremitting reflection to figure out why.
My own digging, so-called, into the Montgomery murders began by accident on January 10, 1987. It was a dreary and rainy Saturday morning when I appeared at the Linn County Historical Museum in Brownsville to conduct research in its collections for my doctoral dissertation. That project later became my first book, and it focused on the environmental history of the southern Willamette Valley. (The reader will detect a clear pattern by now: my preoccupation with history—my need to make sense of its shadows—has taken me back time and again to Brownsville.) The gloominess of that January day and the relative darkness of the room in which I labored provided an atmosphere fitting for what I chanced upon—a photocopy of the special edition of the Brownsville Times for November 20, 1895. Its sole article is entitled “A TRIPPLE MURDER.” It was the first account of that crime to appear anywhere. It was also the one written closest to the event and by someone whose very eyes beheld the aftermath of the tragedy within hours of its commission. Sadly, only random issues from the 1890s of that newspaper are preserved. No issue among those, other than this fragment, comes from the period when the Montgomery murders otherwise lit up the headlines of papers in communities up and down the West Coast.
Albert Cavender, its writer, was the editor of the Brownsville paper. It took some time for word of the violent killings to make its way to his offices. By then, night had already fallen. But the resourceful newsman reached out to local boys—similar in age to the murderer—who, on horseback and with lanterns they must have grasped as tightly as anxiety gripped them, illuminated the way for the journalist as he headed up the country lane into this local heart of darkness. Cavender’s description of the landscape of death that he found there beguiled me—the bodies and the blood; desiccated hop vines in surrounding fields yet clinging to their poles long since the late summer harvest had ended; the Montgomery family’s forlorn and weathered house sitting beneath the sprawling limbs of an immense maple tree; and the canine companion of the neighbor-victim that took up vigil at his slaughtered master’s side, refusing to be lured from it. Those forbidding images and so many others in that two-page document bespoke the poverty, tragedy, darkness, and pathos not just of the victims and the boy murderer but of their community, the larger region, and even the nation.
Cavender’s story had nothing to do with my dissertation’s subject. But it so haunted me that I took a copy of it, promising myself that one day I would do something with it. For the next three decades and more, Loyd Montgomery became an unwelcome companion to me as I struggled to piece together who he was, what he did, how he and his violent actions fit into history, and how to craft a coherent story from it all. As it turned out, I needed those years—time spent at four universities, countless hours in the classroom, and intervals for producing three other books on quite different topics—to collect the research and, more, come to comprehend why Loyd haunted me as much as he did the community that he was more a part of than he was apart from.
Apart from rather than a part of community history is how local memory preferred it. The vast literature that exists on matricide and patricide, moreover, fortifies that construction. That is, psychology, criminology, and other social sciences that dominate parricide studies are by nature disciplines that, with rare exception, are disinterested in the larger, historical forces that I have come to understand contribute mightily to why children have more than occasionally killed their parents. Local tradition and the traditional approaches to explaining parricide had worked together—intentionally, defensively, or both—to bury the truth so deeply about Loyd that I simply needed the time and the education that time affords to unearth it.
As I excavated Loyd’s life, slowly peeling back the accumulated layers of historical and disciplinary sediments and sentiments, a much darker tale revealed itself than simply that of an isolated, though horribly gruesome anecdote. His story is really the underbelly of so many a local Oregon history (and local histories elsewhere in North America) that celebrate the “pioneer” foundations of community, state, and nation. Constructing these histories involved willfully burying the truth about the brutal, murderous, and even genocidal nature of them. But more, the violent expressions within Oregon “pioneer” families were in reality and are in the very wanton act of trying to forget them, an integral part of the story of American-settler violence against Indigenous people. The messy, unresolved, and troubling tension between the darkness of reality and the human need for rosy reflection in all this is just one of the many stories that Pioneering Death exhumes from our haunting past.
Peter Boag is professor and Columbia Chair in the History of the American West at Washington State University. He is author of Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past, Same-Sex Affairs: Constructing and Controlling Homosexuality in the Pacific Northwest, and Environment and Experience: Settlement Culture in Nineteenth-Century Oregon. His latest book, Pioneering Death: The Violence of Boyhood in Turn-of-the-Century Oregon is available now.